New NSW premier will have her hands full with issues that took the shine off Baird


Michael Hogan, University of Sydney

Gladys Berejiklian is undoubtedly one of the best-prepared candidates to take over the premiership of New South Wales in modern times. The Liberal partyroom confirmed her elevation as party leader and premier on Monday morning, with Dominic Perrottet to serve as her deputy.

Most of Berejiklian’s successful predecessors – Neville Wran, Nick Greiner, Bob Carr and Barry O’Farrell, for example – came to the job with much less experience of government, relying on strong performances as opposition leader. Berejiklian has successfully managed two of the most difficult portfolios – transport and treasury – with responsibility for the Hunter and industrial relations thrown in for variety. She also has experience as a senior member of the team that won a landslide victory over Labor in 2011.

However, being well prepared does not guarantee an easy time in office. Berejiklian inherits a Liberal Party that was losing public support in the last year of Mike Baird’s administration.

A vague smell of corruption over Liberal Party electoral funding practices also lingers. This is helped along by the Coalition’s recent decision to restructure the management of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – a move many saw as designed to weaken the body that exposed those funding practices.

Internal policy fights

The NSW Liberal Party is still strongly factionalised at both the parliamentary and local level. O’Farrell was able to neutralise the influence of the radical right faction, while Baird promoted a raft of economic policies that were generally acceptable to the right.

If Berejiklian, who is from the left, wants to choose a different policy mix then she can expect the right will exert its influence. The right faction does not have any viable alternative leadership candidates of its own, but has a strong enough presence in the partyroom to make life difficult.

Berejiklian’s stated intention to concentrate on economic development issues should not have factional implications, although any more PR disaster projects like WestConnex will not be well received. One of the interesting questions is how well she will be able to stare down opposition in the partyroom.

Berejiklian will certainly face a much less compliant National Party. This is a result of the recent shock defeat of the Nationals candidate at the recent Orange by-election, attributed to a perception in rural areas that the Nationals had ignored the interests of rural communities when it allowed the Baird government to ban greyhound racing (a decision it later reversed).

As a result of the by-election loss the Nationals also have a new leader, John Barilaro. He seems to have learned the lessons of the defeat in Orange.

The first issue Berejiklian will face on that front is local council and shire amalgamations. There will also be pressure to take a greater interest in the provision of good schools, hospitals and roads for country areas, which she should be able to accommodate without difficulty.

The next election and the future

Relations with the Nationals will be important as the next election approaches, since the Liberal Party is likely to be in deep trouble in its favoured electorates. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party’s success in Orange will certainly give it a higher profile in lower house seats. And the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will result in contests in most – if not all – rural seats.

There have been strong challenges in some electorates from local independents in recent state elections. There will be no safe seats for the Nationals.

Fortunately for Berejiklian, Labor is not in a position to profit from this situation. The “Country Labor” brand has made little impact in country areas in recent elections.

Nevertheless, given there is currently a swing against the Coalition, and a tight election is likely, a hung parliament after the next election is a real possibility.

Although Labor under Luke Foley has improved its position quickly after the catastrophic election defeat in 2011, it does not offer a great threat to the Berejiklian. Labor cannot win from opposition unless the government makes a complete mess of things – as Baird was threatening to do.

Berejiklian is a more instinctive political animal than Baird. She is less ideological, more pragmatic and prepared to compromise, so one would expect her to consult more and spend more energy on convincing the electorate of the value of her political initiatives.

Overall, while local press, radio and TV commentators prefer Liberal to Labor politicians, and were initially supportive of O’Farrell and Baird, any apparent mistakes will be jumped on. But this premier is female.

After the overtly sexist trashing of Julia Gillard by Tony Abbott, and of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump – both enthusiastically supported by right-wing media outlets – one has to wonder whether a female premier in NSW will be treated fairly.

Media handling of the state’s first female premier, Kristina Keneally, wasn’t particularly friendly, but that was not primarily because of her gender. It probably helps that Berejiklian is on the conservative side of politics.

Shock jock Alan Jones has already fired one broadside against her. But on this issue – as on many others – we will just have to wait and see.

The Conversation

Michael Hogan, Associate Professor and Honorary Associate, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Loose-cannon Trump enters the tinderbox of US-Russia-China relations


Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Donald Trump’s inauguration speech had one simple message: “America first”. His was an inward-looking vision of the future in which America would set about regaining all that has been stolen from it.

His one promise was to restore America to its former wealth, power and security – to recreate a past that has long since gone.

But ours is an increasingly interdependent world, in which America’s relations with its arch-rivals, Russia and China, now less than cordial, are precariously poised. It is a world in which the wider economic, security and political environment is in a state of radical flux.

Neither Trump nor his cabinet nominees appear to grasp how far-reaching these changes are, how severely they limit America’s room for manoeuvre, and how serious are the dangers of miscalculation and overreach.

For all three countries, bilateral ties weigh heavily. Trade looms large in Sino-American relations, and US sanctions against Russia are a major bone of contention. But in reviewing relations between these three centres of power, we need to ask larger questions that go to the heart of regional and global security.

A key question is whether the US and Russia can find ways of accommodating each other’s legitimate interests without provoking European divisions and anxieties. Another is whether they can avoid the proliferation of proxy wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. Importantly, they face the task of averting a renewed nuclear arms race.

It also remains to be seen if China and the US are of a mind to contain, if not resolve, conflicts in East Asia. As the world’s two largest economies, they have to decide whether they will actively promote an orderly system of trade, institutions that can better guard against periodic financial crises, and a climate-change regime that is equal to the task.

We also wait to see whether the three most powerful members of the UN Security Council will allow the UN to play the constructive security and peace-building role assigned to it. Importantly, will they give UN reform the attention it so desperately needs?

Sadly, nothing on the public record suggests these challenges are uppermost in the minds of the new president or his advisers. Tellingly, on all these questions Trump’s inauguration speech maintained a deafening silence.

How will a Trump administration deal with Russia?

Trump is personally inclined to cultivate a better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to be tougher with China’s Xi Jinping.

But what is it that helps explain his approach? In each case, it seems his main preoccupation is to maximise business opportunities for the US corporate sector, and by extension for the US economy.

In decoding Trump’s chaotic use of language, we should not underestimate his ability to surprise and confound his critics. The greater risk would be to overestimate his capacity to control events, or the coherence of his anti-establishment rhetoric.

When it comes to Russia, we should not assume the Trump administration will speak with one voice. Nor should we assume that it will always command the support of the Republican majority in Congress, or that it will be able to disregard entrenched bureaucratic ways of thinking about Russia or the preferences of the immensely powerful US security and intelligence apparatus.

Several prominent Republicans are known for their hostility to Putin’s policies and advocacy of even stronger sanctions against Russia. Already the Senate Intelligence Committee has announced it will conduct a review of Russian hacking in the 2016 election and examine any intelligence “regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns”.

Even among his cabinet nominees, anti-Russian sentiment is strong. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defence secretary, cited Russia as a major threat to US interests:

I think right now the most important thing is that we recognise the reality of what we deal with [in] Mr Putin and we recognise that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.

With Mattis as Trump’s defence secretary, what chance a reset in Russian-American relations?

Even if Trump is given to periodic denunciations of NATO allies – for doing too little rather than too much – how likely is it that his administration will review NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe, or withdraw the thousands of troops that have just arrived in Poland as part of an ongoing rotational deployment?

In any case, Trump will sooner or later have to address the animosity he has aroused in the US intelligence community, and by extension in the American conservative establishment.

Recent allegations that Russian spies have gathered compromising material on Trump’s links with Moscow will make for added caution. Accurate or not, the leaked dossier will have the effect of subjecting his relationship with Putin to the closest scrutiny.

In the end, Trump may be happy to settle for improved economic relations and the easing of sanctions, but little more than that. Pleasant surprises are possible, but reversing the dangerous path on which Russian-American relations are currently set remains a distant prospect.

Donald Trump is personally inclined to cultivate a better relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Reuters

Troubling stance on China

Trump’s announced intention to play tough on China is even more troubling.

Having accused China of being a currency manipulator, of engaging in unfair trade practices, and of stealing American jobs and intellectual property, he could use his presidential powers to impose tariffs and other sanctions.

Given the large US balance of payments deficit with China, he could impose import surcharges of up to 15% for up to 150 days. He could also lodge a complaint against China at the World Trade Organisation.

But such measures are unlikely to produce the desired result, and each is open to costly retaliation. This may help to explain why Trump has, with characteristic clumsiness, made a point of raising two highly sensitive issues: relations with Taiwan, and the South China Sea dispute.

Acceptance of the One China policy has been the cornerstone of Sino-American relations for close to four decades. By threatening to review it, a Trump administration may hope to extract trade and other economic concessions from China. In return, it would agree to retain the status quo on Taiwan.

The same thinking may have inspired Trump’s brief post-election comment on the South China Sea, considerably amplified by Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state. Having likened China’s building of a militarised island in the Spratlys to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he issued a rather extraordinary warning:

We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.

Is this a real threat or mere bluff? Either way, the signs are ominous. And although the official Chinese response has been measured, the Chinese media’s reaction was predictably swift and furious.

Donald Trump could use his presidential powers to impose tariffs and other sanctions on Xi Jinping’s China.
Reuters/Ruben Sprich

What do the next four years hold?

Trump and his team have yet to think through the implications of their statements. Far from “making America great again”, their sloganeering will deepen mistrust of US motives and irreparably damage any prospect of co-existence, let alone a more co-operative world order.

Perhaps the greatest casualty will be the loss of anything approaching a moral compass.

Support for torture, disregard for the rule of law, almost complete indifference to the human rights agenda, and erection of physical and legal walls to keep the victims of war, persecution and economic hardship at bay will merely serve to encourage authoritarianism the world over, not least in Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.

Assuming Trump lasts the journey, the next four years offer an unprecedented opportunity for America’s friends and allies, both the people and their governments, to exercise a newly found independence of thought and action. Collaboratively and with humility, they may need to assume the moral leadership that has become the great imperative of our time.

The Conversation

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If we scrapped the states, increasing Canberra’s clout would be a backward step


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

If you were starting Australia all over again, you would have a national government and 20 regional governments. That was one of the things I agreed with Gough Whitlam on. … Anything that can reduce or end the duplication between Commonwealth, state and local governments is a good idea. – John Winston Howard (quoted in The Weekend Australian, November 9, 1991)

One of the hardy perennials of Australian politics is the claim that the states are obsolete and should be done away with. This view has adherents on all sides of politics, particularly those in the Commonwealth government with long and frustrating experience of dealing with the states. The latest call has come, not for the first time, from former prime minister Bob Hawke.

On the face of it, abolition of the states would imply a highly centralised system in which the powers of the states were transferred to the Commonwealth. However, few proponents of state abolition accept this implication. Instead, it is argued, the three-tier system of federal, state and local governments could be replaced by a two-tier system with 20 or so regional governments, with a resulting reduction in the number of politicians and bureaucrats.

This idea sounds appealing enough in the abstract, which is how it is normally presented. In practice, however, it is necessary to define regions with natural boundaries.

How would the political map be redrawn?

It is obvious, at a minimum, that each existing state and territory capital must have its own region. Also, Geelong clearly belongs with Melbourne, Wollongong, Newcastle and Gosford with Sydney, and the Southeast Queensland region (Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Toowoomba) with Brisbane.

At this point, only a few urban centres with populations in the vicinity of 100,000 are left — Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, and Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria.

Geographically speaking, Townsville and Cairns could form the core of a natural northern region, including Mackay, Charters Towers and Rockhampton. Unfortunately, the two cities are such bitter rivals that even the name of the putative region (North Queensland versus Far North Queensland) would be a source of civil strife. Rather than be governed by the other, either city would prefer to be ruled from Brisbane or Canberra.

The problem with Tasmania is the opposite. In practice, Tasmania is already divided into two parts. These have separate newspapers, breweries and educational institutions, not to mention attitudes.

Although Hobart is the seat of government, the northern coast, including Launceston, Burnie and Devonport, has half the population and most of the growth prospects. Far from strengthening regional diversity, the formal division of the state into two regions would simply strengthen the north at the expense of the south.

Suppose, however, that we allow North Queensland and Northern Tasmania as regions. The ten regions described so far include urban centres accounting for more than 75% of Australia’s population. When their immediate hinterland is taken into account, the figure is probably between 85% and 90%.

The concentration of Australians in the big urban centres – font sizes of place names are scaled here in line with populations – presents problems for creating representative regional governments.
shutterstock

What about the rest of Australia?

It is simply nonsense to suggest that the remaining 2-3 million people could be divided up into ten sustainable regions, as the 20-region idea would suggest.

The whole of Western Australia outside Perth has barely half a million people. South Australia outside Adelaide has fewer than 400,000. Road, rail and air transport networks all radiate from Adelaide and Perth. Any regional government formed in these states would have little option but to base its operations in the existing state capital.

Superficially, the prospects for regionalism look better in the eastern states. New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland each have well over a million people living outside the metropolitan conurbations. But the prospects are superficial indeed.

The biggest provincial centres in the Melbourne sphere of influence are Ballarat, Bendigo, the Latrobe Valley and Wodonga (usually lumped with its NSW twin, Albury). Ballarat and Bendigo are close neighbours, but the other centres have little in common except that they are not Melbourne. The same is true of Bathurst-Orange, Coffs Harbour and Wagga in NSW.

Jeff Kennett lost office in Victoria to a revolt by non-metropolitan voters, who might not be better off if the current states are abolished.
Julian Smith/AAP

Rural and regional Australians feel neglected by governments based in faraway coastal cities, and often with good reason. But under the current system, country voters frequently exercise the balance of power and can punish governments that are too focused on the interests of the metropolis. Jeff Kennett found this out to his cost as Victorian premier in 1999.

In a system of regional governments, this influence would be lost. The regions would still depend on the former capitals for transport hubs, teaching hospitals, major universities and a host of other services, but would no longer have any political leverage over them.

In dealings between say, a government of Northwestern New South Wales and a government of Greater Sydney, it is not hard to imagine who would lose out.

Beware the unitary state

The only way the system could be made to work is if the federal government stepped in to level the playing field. In practice, the Commonwealth would assume all the powers of the former states and the regional governments would be glorified shire councils.

The result would be a unitary state, easily the largest in the world by area and almost certainly one of the most fractious. Decisions on matters like bus services and housing developments in say, Brisbane, would be made by bureaucrats in Canberra and ministers whose electorates might be in Perth.

Voters who already view Canberra as remote and distant would become even more even more hostile when every rail breakdown and hospital mishap could be blamed on that faraway city.

And, although the states would be gone, the geographical realities they represent would not. The fights we now see at meetings of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) would be played out within the national government.

The allocation of ministries such as health and education between the former states would be a matter of vital concern. State-based factions would become even more important than they are now.

The desire for uniformity, which is central to the argument for unitary government, would run into the reality that conditions in a country as large as Australia are incredibly diverse.

To take a trivial example, nearly all existing unitary governments are confined to a single time zone. The need to co-ordinate every aspect of public policy with a government in a different time zone would increase the alienation already felt in places like Adelaide and Perth.

The push for regional government may be unsuited to Australian conditions, but it is at least consistent with the general tendency around the world towards subsidiarity – that is, allowing decisions specific to a particular group of people to be made, as far as possible, by those people.

Previously unitary states like the UK and even France have devolved much of their formerly centralised power. A shift by Australia towards a unitary government, motivated by such trivial concerns as the desire for uniformity and administrative cost savings, would be a retrograde step.

The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘America first’ – Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States


Tom Clark, Victoria University

Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States of America, duly sworn in before a crowd of well-wishers, rivals, and desperately curious others. Now, while he is installing himself in the White House, the words of his inaugural address are filtering through the world.

His remarks made significant, but not huge, departures from the “stump speech” we have heard from him many times already. As with his victory speech, Trump was conspicuously magnanimous towards the individuals he was elected to oppose:

We are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

This time, perhaps disappointing many, it was not the bling – the “You’re gonna love our speeches … we’ve got some of the best words, and some of the best people writing our words”, as Alec Baldwin might satirise it.

Still, for the first five minutes or so, it was sounding more like a speech of opposition than of government:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left. And the factories closed.

Many have noted it was a speech that addressed Trump’s support base most directly, as the transcript’s next paragraph revealed. These are the people whose opposition to the way things are has brought Trump to power. Shifting from oppositional behaviour to constructive government without estranging that base may just prove too hard to achieve in public:

The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now. Because this is your moment. It belongs to you.

A sense of agenda for Trump the president only seemed to click into gear after he caricatured the lives of those “forgotten men and women” (echoes of a phrase we have heard before?) he claims to champion:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.

And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

And what is that agenda? What is this “new decree, to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power” that Trump proclaims?

The clear word from his speech was protection, meaning protection from the rest of the world. It is a note against multilateral free trade, but it goes further. Not many of the political leaders who are fighting to maintain post-1945 institutions of global co-operation, including those in the US, are going to enjoy these sentiments:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first — America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and great strength.

In the terrific NPR annotated transcript of Trump’s speech (other news services, take note), Ron Elving draws attention to the difficult connotations of that phrase “America First”.

It was particularly associated with Charles Lindbergh, a right-wing figure who in the 1930s had expressed sympathy and fascination for the German government of Adolf Hitler, especially his air force (Lindbergh made his fame as an aviator). Lindbergh’s doctrine of “America First” meant an isolationist refusal to join the second world war, accompanied by a protectionist economic stance.

Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, published in 2004, explores the hypothetical scenario in which Lindbergh becomes the president in 1940 and New Jersey’s Jewish population shifts to a climate of high fear. There have been many echoes of that fiction in all the fevered speculation about Trump’s motives lately, especially for his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is not the place to fuel or debunk such speculation, but its prevalence in public discussion is a very clear pointer to the prevalence of fear and distrust. It seems that more Americans fear and distrust this president on his inauguration day than any other in the history of such opinion polls.

Countering that negativity is the big challenge for Trump, which is why his speech was hard-pressed to avoid talking about it:

The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is unites, America is totally unstoppable.

There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

As his own opposing and condemning of the previous government makes clear, it will be very hard for Trump to bring his country together in biblical pleasantry. This speech offers no reason to believe he will try.

Meanwhile, a significant problem with focusing on transcripts and their annotations is that we tend to notice the logic of the words more than their delivery. Victor Klemperer wrote in 1947:

What a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.

Trump’s tone and body language offered a rather subdued version of the personality we have grown used to: less rude, less ribald, even less bombastic than the campaign-trail Donald. There is clearly some measure of self-discipline involved here – and that at least suggests a seriousness of intent.

If you are interested, that same NPR page links to a video recording of the speech. It is well worth watching.

Donald Trump’s inaugural address.

The Conversation

Tom Clark, Associate Professor, College of Arts, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Baird’s early exit means NSW loses a leader whose best years were yet to come


Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

It used to be the case that participation in political life was considered to be a vocation, and that those who chose it were in it for the long haul, through thick and thin. The most prominent example of this in Australian history was Billy Hughes. Even after he lost the prime ministership in early 1923 he continued to be a member of the House of Representatives until his death in 1952.

That has all changed. Mike Baird’s resignation, both as New South Wales premier and from the state parliament, comes as somewhat of a shock. He is only 48, has been an MP for less than ten years and premier for less than three. One would have thought his best years in public life were ahead of him.

No scandals and no internal ructions

Baird has cited personal reasons for his decision to leave politics, and one can well sympathise with him in regard to the health of his parents and sister. Public life is demanding and invariably takes a toll on the personal lives of those who participate in it.

One should point out, though, that this is the case in many occupations, including the law, high-level finance and executive positions in the public service.

Baird is the fifth NSW premier in the last ten years, and only one of them lost their job as the result of an election. His predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, resigned in the wake of allegations he had failed to declare a bottle of Grange Hermitage as a gift.

One should ask if it is a good thing that the NSW premiership has been turned over so often in recent times. In this regard, it seems to resemble the turnover at the federal level.

Baird’s resignation was not caused by scandal or political machinations leading to him being overthrown. In his relatively short time as premier he has performed reasonably well. NSW has performed quite well in economic terms; there have been no issues in the area of power generation; and, as Baird points out, there has been infrastructure development.

Sure, there have been a few problems over the past year relating to council amalgamations and the attempt to close down the greyhound industry. Certainly 2016 was a much more difficult year for Baird than 2015.

The great unknown

One could argue, though, that the problems of 2016 could have been an important aspect of Baird’s political education, and one would have hoped it would make him a better and more effective premier. Alas, that is not to be the case.

Politicians like to argue that a political career is like any other career. This means they develop skills and capacities that make them good at their job. It also means they should become more effective the longer they spend in politics.

This was certainly the case with John Howard, who did not become prime minister until he had been in public life for more than 20 years.

In this regard we shall never know just how effective Baird might have been as a political leader. He became premier in 2014 and initially enjoyed considerable popularity. He won an election. And, like any political leader, he made a few mistakes that dinted his popularity.

At this stage, one would have expected that he would have taken advantage of his setbacks, as did Howard, to grow as political leader.

We will now not know the true capacities of Baird as a leader. Instead, a successor will have to take over and learn the ropes. It will be interesting to see how the NSW people react to yet another change in leadership.

The issue would seem to be that in the new world, for many politicians, a time in politics is just another stage in their careers as they progress to other things. This is not to deny that political life is a hard life. The problem may be the modern way of thinking of it as a career, as something one does just to satisfy ambition.

Australia, both federally and at the state level, needs good leadership if it is to thrive. Good leaders just don’t appear out of nowhere. They become good leaders by working hard and growing into their jobs.

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Persecution News Update


The link below is to an article that looks at the worst countries to be a Christian in, as far as persecution is concerned.

For more visit:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/january/top-50-countries-christian-persecution-world-watch-list.html

Heed Hawke’s call – Australian federalism is an idea whose time has ended


Bede Harris, Charles Sturt University

Former prime minister Bob Hawke’s recent call for the state governments to be abolished is worthy of support.

Labor has historically been in favour of centralisation, while the Coalition has supported federalism. So, Hawke’s position is not surprising. But leaving aside party politics, there are good reasons why Australia should consider this change to its Constitution.

Solves no problem and confers no benefit

The reason Australia has a federal Constitution is a negative one. It was due to fear from the colonies of domination by each other or by the new national government.

Taken at its best, the adoption of federalism in preference to a unitary system was the necessary price of creating Australia as a nation. At its worst, it was a base compromise pandering to colonial jealousies, which now saddles Australia with an unnecessarily complex and expensive form of government.

Unlike in countries such as Nigeria, where federalism serves the purpose of providing for ethnic autonomy, Australian federalism solves no problem and confers no benefit.

The supposed major benefit of federalism is that it provides protection against tyranny by diffusing power. But federalism does not affect what governments can do to individuals, only which government may do them. Distributions of power are not as effective a protection of liberty as are restraints on power.

Federalism cannot provide an effective limit to what the state and Commonwealth parliaments can in combination do to the individual. Only a Bill of Rights can do that.

So, Australia is left with nine governments and 15 legislative chambers for a population of 24 million.

The costs of this are staggering. In 2002, the annual costs of federalism to the economy was estimated at A$40 billion – a figure that would be much higher today.

This covers costs such as running state and territory governments, costs to the Commonwealth of interacting with the states, and compliance costs to business. But it excludes intangible costs in the form of time and inconvenience: think of simple matters such as car registration or entry into a new school system experienced by anyone who has moved interstate.

Public opinion in favour

There is ample evidence that Australians, notoriously resistant to constitutional change, would support abolishing the states.

A 2014 survey by the Griffith Federalism Project found 71% of respondents favoured changing the current system. Among this majority, there were preferences for different allocations of power between national, regional and local governments.

The idea of replacing the states with regions defined along rational economic lines was an interesting feature of these results. But even more significant were the results of a 2014 survey commissioned by lobby group Beyond Federation, in which 78% of respondents supported the idea of Australia having a single set of laws for the country. So, it seems that constitutional reform to abolish the states would be well received by voters.

Making such a change would mean that, as in New Zealand and the UK, Australia would have a single (national) parliament with comprehensive lawmaking power. That parliament could delegate lawmaking authority to regions and/or local governments, in the same way as state parliaments currently delegate power to local authorities.

However, there would be no more disputes over which lawmaking power the national parliament had, and no doubt that national law overrode regional and local law. The legal system would be much simpler, and compliance costs to business and individuals radically reduced.

Australia would also have one department of education, one department of agriculture, one department of the environment and so on, instead of multiple agencies currently.

Disputes over shares of Commonwealth revenue allocated to the states is a constant feature of federal-state relations. All that would be a thing of the past. Expenditure could be determined according to the needs of people, irrespective of where they lived and without reference to artificial state boundaries.

The current focus on “reforming” the federation avoids the real issue: why have federalism at all? If we were writing a constitution from new, would we really recreate the current nine-government system? If the answer to that is “no”, there is a good reason to change it.

The Conversation

Bede Harris, Senior Lecturer in Law, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ley goes, and Turnbull’s reforms pave way for fewer expenses scandals


Yee-Fui Ng, RMIT University

Sussan Ley has resigned as health minister following allegations she misused her travel entitlements and breached ministerial standards.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Ley judged resignation to be the appropriate course of action in the interests of the government. But Ley has maintained her claims were within the rules.

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In response to the scandal, Turnbull has announced major reforms to the parliamentary entitlements system. The changes are modelled on the UK’s system of vetting MPs’ expenses.

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What are the proposed reforms?

The main reform Turnbull announced is the introduction of an independent agency, modelled on the UK’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, for parliamentary entitlements. The Department of Finance administers Australia’s current system.

The independent authority will be staffed by a member experienced in auditing, a member experienced in remuneration matters, the president of the Remuneration Tribunal, a former judge and a former MP. This is a very strong board. It will have significant independence from the government.

MPs and senators will be able to get advice and rulings from the independent agency if they are unsure about a claim.

This means the administration of MPs’ entitlements will now be out of the hands of MPs themselves, who may be interested in a generous interpretation of claimable expenses. MPs’ expenses will now be overseen in a more robust and independent way.

The second reform is to have monthly disclosure of parliamentary expenses, rather than every six months. More frequent reporting will certainly improve the system’s transparency.

The government has also committed to implementing the recommendations of the independent review of parliamentary entitlements that followed then-Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s 2015 “Choppergate” scandal.

As such, entitlement claims will be limited to those made for the dominant purpose of conducting parliamentary business. This excludes political party administration and management, and activities for the dominant purpose of party fundraising, pursuing commercial interests or obtaining personal benefit.

The legal enforcement of the system will be increased. Where MPs misuse entitlements, legislation will oblige them to repay the money – plus a 25% penalty.

The terminology of “entitlements” will be changed to “work expenses”. This is because MPs are given resources to perform their duties in exchange for acting in the public interest.

What happened in the UK?

In 2009, the UK had its own MP expenses scandal. UK MPs made inappropriate claims for a second residence allowance, alongside outrageous claims for moat cleaning, a ride-on lawn mower, jellied eels and a duck house.

The scandal led to the first resignation of a Speaker in the House of Commons for more than 300 years, and prompted the resignation of a dozen government ministers.

Following public outrage, legislation was introduced to set up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It was a strong reaction to a
situation that the then-British prime minister, Gordon Brown, called the “biggest parliamentary scandal for two centuries”.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority determines what MPs can claim, and administers and audits those claims. It is independent of government and has significant resources.

Will the reforms fix the system?

Turnbull’s reforms will significantly revamp the entitlements system. They introduce for the first time an independent agency to vet MP expenses. If the agency does its job well, it will ensure MPs do not abuse the system.

The reforms will also simplify the system, enhance transparency, tighten the rules, and introduce enforceable penalties.

When the system comes into effect, Australians will hopefully see fewer politicians flying around in helicopters and private jets while attending to their private affairs on public funds. The reforms are a great first step toward rebuilding public trust in our elected representatives.

The Conversation

Yee-Fui Ng, Lecturer, Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Expenses reform is easy and essential – the only thing lacking is politicians’ resolve to do it


Colleen Lewis, Monash University

What is it that too many politicians don’t get about the inappropriate use of taxpayer-funded expenses and the need to reform federal political donations laws and establish a federal anti-corruption body?

The answer to those questions may help explain why MPs continue to behave inappropriately in each area. This is important, as the impact of politicians’ inappropriate decisions on people’s trust is becoming alarming.

It is now evident that too many politicians appear to have misplaced their moral compass. When this happens in any one of the policy areas referred to above, people’s trust in their elected representatives is eroded. But when inappropriate actions and decisions span all three policy areas, trust is lost, sometimes permanently. If that happens, it is not only the reputation of politicians that suffer. Lack of trust extends to the democratic political system itself.

Public office is a public trust. Any MP who understands, accepts and acts on that principle will surely insist that the public interest be placed before personal and party interests.

The latest in a series of scandals relating to MPs’ inability to understand the difference between public and private interests involves federal Health Minister Sussan Ley.

The public reaction to it should send a strong message to all parliamentarians. The message is: voters are fed up with political scandals consuming elected representatives’ time and energy, especially when the country faces several social and economic challenges. MPs cannot find solutions to these important issues when they are constantly distracted by the behaviour of too many of their colleagues.

Perhaps parliamentarians need reminding that taxpayers do not pay them to take advantage of a totally inadequate parliamentary entitlements scheme with too many loopholes, through which many of them willingly jump.

Federal MPs also need to remember that people do not pay taxes so that they can deliver a political donations regime that is pathetically weak. For years, parliamentarians have turned a blind eye to evidence-based reports and the advice of experts in the political donations field. Both have said time and again that meaningful reform is urgently required.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is due to bring down a report on political donations in March. It will be a test for the committee to come together and demonstrate that it has placed the public interest before party and personal interests. The nature of its recommendations and the speed with which they are implemented will reveal MPs’ commitment to cleaning up this neglected policy area.

Voters have made it clear that they want their elected representatives to be accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money. One of the best ways to ensure this is through an independent, federal anti-corruption body. A division within such a body could also offer advice to parliamentarians unsure about whether an expense is directly and predominantly related to their role as parliamentarians, or is largely personal in nature.

The evidence clearly demonstrates that many parliamentarians have deliberately dragged their feet when it comes to reforming the “entitlements” scheme and overhauling the woefully inadequate federal political donations regime. They have also resisted the establishment of a federal anti-corruption body. Detailed explanations as to why they have acted in this way are required.

The delays are not only on reforms that affect serving members of parliament. It seems they are also looking after former colleagues. Despite promising to overhaul the entitlements system that still applies to many people who were once parliamentarians – some many years ago – nothing has happened in the past two years.

Why? Is it too difficult? Again, a detailed explanation is required and not one that says “we are looking into it” or “we will establish a committee to do so”. These excuses are becoming tiresome to everyone except MPs.

The very best new year’s resolution every MP could make is to promise to work toward restoring people’s trust, which is at a dangerously low level. An excellent place to start would be reforming, in a meaningful way, MPs’ entitlements and the political donations regime. Establishing a federal anti-corruption body would go a long way towards completing an integrity circle.

All these reforms are achievable this year. The only major obstacle to be overcome is parliamentarians’ lack of resolve to do so.

The Conversation

Colleen Lewis, Adjunct Professor, National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: why has Rod Culleton been disqualified from the Senate?


Lorraine Finlay, Murdoch University

The ongoing legal controversies surrounding Western Australian senator Rod Culleton – described by a Federal Court judge as “something approaching a carnival, if not a circus” – took a new turn on Wednesday. Senate President Stephen Parry made the constitutional step of notifying the WA government of a Senate vacancy due to Culleton’s disqualification following a long saga over his eligibility to sit in the upper house.

Culleton’s disqualification comes after Parry received formal notification of Culleton’s status as an undischarged bankrupt.

Even before the 2016 election results were formally declared, questions were being asked over whether Culleton was actually eligible to be a senator. Since that time, two key constitutional issues have emerged.

The Court of Disputed Returns

The first issue relates to a larceny charge in New South Wales concerning a A$7.50 tow truck key. Culleton was convicted in March 2016. However, the conviction was annulled in August, meaning it “ceases to have effect”.

While Culleton later pleaded guilty at a rehearing in October, no conviction was ultimately recorded.

In November, the Senate referred this conviction’s constitutional impact to the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. The issue is whether Culleton’s election was valid under Section 44(ii) of the Constitution, which provides a person is incapable of being a senator if they have:

… been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a state by imprisonment for one year or longer.

The larceny conviction falls squarely within this section’s scope. The critical question is whether Culleton had actually been convicted at the time of his election (and was therefore ineligible), given this was subsequently annulled.

The central issue concerns the word “annulment”. If the Court of Disputed Returns holds that the conviction never existed then this issue falls away. If, however, the effect of an annulment is not retrospective then Culleton was never eligible to be elected.

At the conclusion of hearings on December 7 the court reserved its decision. It is not scheduled to sit again until January 30.

There is no guarantee that a decision will be handed down at the next sittings, or before the Senate next meets on February 7. However, the court has previously recognised the public interest in this matter being resolved expeditiously.

Culleton’s bankruptcy proceedings

The second issue concerns bankruptcy proceedings filed against Culleton.

On December 23, 2016, a Federal Court judge ordered that Culleton’s estate be sequestrated (or seized to pay his debts). All proceedings under the order were stayed for 21 days; this stay was due to be lifted on January 13.

Culleton continues to assert he is not bankrupt, and is able to pay his debts. However, the Federal Court judge dismissed this. He noted that, despite assertions made before the court, there was “no material evidence” produced to support these claims. An appeal against the sequestration order was filed on January 11, but no date has yet been set for the appeal hearing.

The effect of a sequestration order is that the debtor becomes a bankrupt. In Culleton’s case, this then enlivens sections 44 and 45 of the Constitution. These provide that an undischarged bankrupt is incapable of sitting as a senator, and their Senate position becomes vacant.

Parry’s statement indicated he has received from the inspector-general in bankruptcy and the Federal Court registry documents recording Culleton’s status as an undischarged bankrupt. The necessary constitutional implication is that Culleton’s Senate position is vacant.

What happens next?

This saga still has some way to go before its conclusion. But it is almost certain that Culleton will not be able to continue as a senator.

Even if he successfully appeals the sequestration order and the Court of Disputed Returns rules in his favour, Culleton still faces further constitutional hurdles. Another creditor’s petition is yet to be heard by the Federal Court, and a stealing charge is listed for trial in Perth in September 2017. These could each result in Culleton being constitutionally precluded from sitting as a senator.

From a constitutional perspective, however, it is critical that the correct grounds for disqualification are established. This will affect how a replacement senator is chosen.

If the Court of Disputed Returns rules that Culleton was never eligible to be elected, then – based on precedent – the most-likely outcome is that the second-listed One Nation candidate from the 2016 election will be declared elected. This happens to be Culleton’s brother-in-law, Peter Georgiou.

If, however, Culleton was initially eligible but is subsequently disqualified as an undischarged bankrupt, then a casual vacancy would arise to be dealt with under Section 15 of the Constitution. In this case, One Nation would recommend a party member to fill the vacancy, and the WA parliament would formally appoint this replacement.

If the WA parliament is not in session – which is a distinct possibility given a state election will be held on March 11 – then the WA governor will make the appointment, which must then be confirmed at the next state parliamentary sittings. One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has already tweeted that she has selected a “great person” as a replacement if a casual vacancy is declared.

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Given these possibilities, it would be prudent to wait until both the existing bankruptcy appeal and the Court of Disputed Returns’ decision are finalised before taking any steps to fill the vacancy. This is far from ideal given both the close numbers in the Senate and that WA will be under-represented in the “states’ house” for as long as the position remains unfilled.

However, the removal of a senator who was duly elected by the people only six months ago is not something to be done lightly. And it is certainly not something to be done on anything other than conclusively determined constitutional grounds.

The Conversation

Lorraine Finlay, Lecturer in Law, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.